Don't be distracted by violence on the fringes of European politics, the far right are taking over by legitimate means too
Ahead of the European parliament elections, these groups are on track to form a rallying point for those who wish to defy EU rules on everything from human rights to budget deficits
Far-right yobs yelling abuse and threatening MPs and journalists in Westminster. The gilets jaunes, a rag bag of populists and discontents, burning the streets of Paris. A far-right German MP beaten up in Bremen.
Nothing to trivialise there. And yet none, even taken together, and even with several degrees of escalation, seriously threaten the future of European liberal values. But there is a much more lethal threat to European democracy – from the ballot box itself, and it will soon enough be upon us.
In May, there will be elections to the European parliament. It seems very likely indeed that this important European institution, once the very seat of federalist ambitions, will be transformed into a sort of playpen for the fruitcakes, nutcases and plain evil hard cases of European politics.
They are what is usually, and too politely, termed “populists”. We know that Steve Bannon, architect of Trumpism, has been in Europe working to build up the ant-EU forces. We should be warned.
They are a mixed bag, as well as being mixed up themselves. Some are, in reality, neo-fascists, neo-Nazis, far-right nationalists, ultra-conservatives, separatists, anti-migrant, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, anti-Islamic, even anti-democratic (covertly or overtly) – and every permutation of the foregoing.
Together, by the looks of things, they will garner about a fifth to a third of the available vote, and perhaps more if there is another migrant crisis or economic disaster that will galvanise people and push the traditionally low turnout rates much higher. Proportional representation makes it easy for small groups to gain seats, but in many of the largest EU states the far right is well past the usual thresholds imposed in direct elections. They have their chance, and conditions are favouring them.
Elections for the European parliament are traditionally used as a protest vote about domestic or European politics, and there are plenty of unpopular governments across the continent to fuel a drive by the far right and their allies for increased numbers and a louder voice. And boy will they shout – about migration, about free movement of people, about the rules of the European single currency, about the supposed arrogance of the European Commission, Court and European Central Bank, and much else.
Imagine a parliament full of people like Nigel Farage, but, unlike Ukip, actually prepared to turn up, vote and generally do something about shoving Europe in a reactionary, racist and anti-EU direction.
They will invade the European parliament from almost every corner of Europe, because the far right has recently been scoring terrifyingly high poll ratings everywhere from Sweden to Italy.
For example, if the UK actually does leave the EU, and its representation of 73 seats in the European parliament disappears, the seats will be redistributed, with certain demographic discrepancies corrected. Germany, the most populous nation, keeps the greatest number of allocated seats, at 96 out of the grand total of 705.
By the looks of the polls there, the extreme Alternative for Germany movement (AfD) might grab, say, a fifth of those, as it seems to have some momentum in recent regional elections. And don’t be in any doubt about how awkward they are – the AfD re actually talking about taking Germany out of the EU – Dexit – and without Germany there is no EU at all.
France gets 79 seats, and the far right there might win a third or more of the vote. There, where civil unrest is most obvious, recent polling suggests that Marine le Pen’s National Rally – a rebranded National Front – has overtaken President Macron’s En Marche!, itself a rare centrist insurgent grouping. Politics are more fluid than at any time since the Second World War – and that is boosting the radicals of the right and, occasionally, Green-Red left.
Italy? Well, the Five Star and Liga parties are already in coalition government in Rome, and have used all their influence to blame Europe ad Macron for Italy’s problems – another bloc for the far right ready to turn up in Brussels. The Netherlands, Sweden, Demark, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic will also send sizeable contingents, with a handful of others from virtually every other member state.
There are two main groups in the European parliament representing the far right and fellow travellers – the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, which includes Ukip and the bunch known as Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), which features the French National front/Rally and Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party.
According to Politico, together they could win 105 seats on current poll ratings, putting them third, just behind the social democratic S&D (Progressive alliance of Socialists and Democrats), on 133 seats, and the conservative European People’s Party, on 177.
And what will they do when they get there?
They will clown around, pull stunts and cause chaos. They won’t have a majority, but in the fragmented assembly they could still disrupt the workings of the EU. The European parliament has powers which can be abused. Thus a loose ENF-EFDD bloc of far right MEPs can support their allies in government in Poland, Hungary and Italy to defy the EU's rules on human rights and freedom of the judiciary; on EU migration policy; and on the rules about government budget deficits and the euro.
The parliament has powers of co-decision with the Commission and Council of Ministers; it has the right of legislative initiative; it has scrutiny over the Commission; and (as now with Brexit) it has the right to veto treaties. They could block new EU members in East Europe form joining.
If nothing else, the far right in the European parliament will form a rallying point for those who want to close Europe’s borders and end freedom of movement around the Union itself. They may not succeed entirely, this time, but there is no doubt about what they are about. Brexit may be just the start of it.
The only cause for optimism is that, being nationalists and erratic, the ENF/EFDD are bound to quarrel between and within themselves, and splinter, and they may end up being utterly ineffective in pursuing their own various random agendas, from Flemish independence, to eliminating an independent media in Hungary, to a public register for Swedish paedophiles.
But as a negative, wrecking, anti-democratic and anti-European force, their energy and malevolence should not be underestimated.